The Story of Nations - Holland/Chapter 21

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But it is necessary that I should go a little back from the reference to the truce of 1609, referred to in the last chapter, and perhaps repeat my story. Philip was dead, and the Archdukes were Regents in Brussels. Just before Philip's fatal illness he made up his mind to transfer the Netherlands from the Crown of Spain to his daughter and his daughter's future husband, the Archduke Albert. The union, though formal, was not believed by the Hollanders to be complete, for when the negotiations for peace or truce were dragging along, the Dutch, statesmen insisted that the King of Spain should renounce his sovereignty over Holland as the Archdukes agreed to renounce theirs.

The Archduke Albert was the brother of the German Emperor. He was a Cardinal, and Archbishop of Toledo, the richest see in Spain. Hence it was necessary when he was appointed Governor of the obedient provinces in 1596, and Commander-in-chief against the revolted provinces, that he should get permission from the Pope to lay aside his clerical profession. He did not indeed succeed immediately to Parma, for a brother of Albert's, the Archduke Ernest, filled the place of Governor for about a year, and died, for the Low Countries were during a time as deadly to governors as they were to soldiers. The Cardinal was almost thirty-five years of age when he was appointed to this office, and he was two years in it before Philip could make up his mind to the practical severance of the provinces from the Spanish Crown, and to the marriage of the Cardinal with his daughter. In the first year of Albert's government the English and the Dutch destroyed the Spanish fleet in the Bay of Cadiz, and sacked the town.

Though the Archduke was not to be compared for an instant with such men as Don John and Parma, his military career was not. unsuccessful. But these successes, and particularly the capture of Calais and certain adjacent forts, assisted in making the alliance between Elizabeth, Henry of France, and the Dutch more intimate and sincere. So important did these successes seem, that in 1596 Philip sent a second armada with a view to the invasion of England, eight years after the first had failed. Like the former, it was destroyed by a tempest. But in 1597 Maurice won the decisive battle of Turnhout, and for a time annihilated the Spanish army. The victory was decisive, not because it finished the war, but because it proved to the Hollanders that they could meet the Spaniards in battle with good hopes of success.

But Philip had inflicted on the governor whom he had sent to the Low Countries a far greater injury than Maurice and the King of France were able to compass. On November 26, 1596, the King of Spain repudiated all the debts which he had contracted, and took again into his hands all those domains, revenues, and taxes which he had pledged for the payment of the interest on his debts. The effect was immediate and disastrous. The Cardinal had carried on the war by bills of exchange, and we are told that in one day two and a half millions of these bills came back dishonoured. In most of the commercial cities of Europe merchants and bankers were ruined by scores. Frankfort and Genoa were impoverished, and Antwerp was despoiled of all that had been left to it, by frequent plunderings. The Archduke in order to keep any forces about him was constrained to sell his plate. The repudiation of Philip's debts was a turning-point in the history of the War of Independence, for in the year 1597 Maurice contrived to win nine fortified cities to the Republic, and to strengthen its frontier. But, on the other hand, the Dutch were weakened by the practical desertion of Henry, who was seeking to make peace with Philip, and in the end effected it by the Treaty of Vervins, signed on May 2, 1598. On September 13th of the same year Philip died.

The successor of Philip the Second, whose life was a long war against civil and religious liberty, was his son of the same name. No two persons could be more different than father and son. The old king insisted on transacting all the business of the vast empire over which he ruled himself. It was, of course, impossible that he could do this well and efficiently, or anything speedily. But he worked diligently at his prodigious task, and wore himself out over it. Mischievous and hateful as his career was, ruinous as it was to every part of his empire where he could maintain his authority, he believed that what he did was to the glory of God and for the ultimate good of man; and perhaps no man ever laboured for his ends so thoroughly and so persistently as Philip the Second did. His son did absolutely nothing. He surrendered himself at once into the hands of his favourite, the Duke of Lerma, and transacted no business whatever. He was as orthodox as his father, and was as unwise as he was orthodox, for he achieved the final ruin of Spain by the banishment of the Moriscoes. But he had not, even for a day, a will of his own. Now the Archdukes became practically independent of the Spanish Crown, and it became possible for peace to be contemplated, though owing to the perfidy of Henry of France, and the poltroonery, of James of England, the result was delayed.

Elizabeth survived her brother-in-law and enemy four years and a half. She never failed to recognize, capricious and poor as she was - and I am persuaded that much of her caprice was due to the straits she was in for money - that the defence of the United Provinces was the defence of England, and that the complete reconquest of the old inheritance of the house of Burgundy would be more than a menace to her kingdom and his people. But Elizabeth was exceedingly poor. England was not then a country which manufactured for the world, as it came to be two centuries later, or traded with the whole world as it did a century and a half after the Queen's death. The kingdom was then relatively poorer than it had been a century before, when the clothweavers of Flanders depended absolutely on England for their raw material, though the export of wool was still the most important English staple. It is true that at the conclusion of her reign she granted a charter to the East India Company, nearly at the same time that the Dutch founded theirs, by enrolling all the East India merchants into a corporation. But from the beginning the capital of the Dutch company was eight times that of the English, and the trade was for many a long day twenty times as lucrative. Historians in modern times criticize Elizabeth's policy and her acts without informing themselves of the means which she had at her disposal. Elizabeth made every effort which parsimony could aid to improve her finances. But it was not till nearly half a century after her death that the charters which she granted and the enterprise she favoured began to be remunerative either to the English people or to the royal treasury.

Henry of France, though he had to fight for his throne, and to change his religion in order to secure it, was acknowledged at last by his arch-enemy Philip, and perfectly understood how unable Spain had become to harm him. He formulated, as one cannot doubt, the purpose which remained the policy of France from his day to our own, the acquisition of all Western Europe from, the Pyrenees to the Rhine, and with them the appropriation of Flanders and Holland. For the possession of the Archduke's inheritance every great continental war which France waged was carried on. Belgium was the battlefield of Europe from the War of Independence to the fight at Waterloo, in pursuance of the leading French idea. Nor do I doubt if the issue of the war Of 1870 had been different, that Belgium at least would have fallen a prey to the Second Empire. Now nothing could suit the aims of the French policy more than a war in the Low Countries which, by weakening every one, made the whole district an easier prey to France. This interpretation of French history could be confirmed by a thousand facts.

After the death of Philip the Second, and for a few years afterwards, the war languished. Both sides were for a time exhausted. Maurice of Orange with difficulty kept up a small army, and the Spanish forces chiefly maintained themselves with the plunder of the Duchy of Cleves, contiguous to, but no part of the ancient inheritance of the house of Burgundy. In fact, the expedition into Cleves was private war levied on part of the German Empire, the feeble Emperor Rudolph, being utterly incapable of defending the province. All that Maurice could do was to defend the Dutch frontier. It is probable that at last the Spanish Government saw that Dutch trade with Spain and its dependencies, however important it might be to Spain, was vital to the United Provinces, and therefore began to forbid it under heavy penalties. They could not indeed extinguish it, for the machinery of a preventive service was as yet undiscovered. But they could cripple it, and weaken Dutch tactics by narrowing Dutch commerce.

During the few years which intervened before the final settlement of the twelve years' truce, some military events of first-rate significance occurred, and another important personage appeared on the scene. The events are the battle of Niewpoort, the siege of Ostend, the foundation and exploits of the Universal East India Company, and the great naval battle of Gibraltar Bay. The person who appears on the stage is the Marquis Spinola, who for a time gave some hopes that the Forty Years' War might, in a few years more, be concluded in accordance with the policy which Spain had persistently advocated.

The investment of Niewpoort and the battle of the same name occurred in 1600. The States-General at the urgent instance of Barneveldt resolved on an invasion of Flanders, with the object of weakening the Archdukes who were now forced to rely almost entirely on the resources of the obedient provinces for the means of war, and it was resolved that the town of Niewpoort should be attacked and captured. Niewpoort is a town on the sea-coast, at about eight miles west of Ostend, strongly fortified, and at high water on an island. As Maurice and his army marched through West Flanders, the Flemings, instead of welcoming him as a deliverer, looked upon his army as doomed to destruction, and when they did not avoid his soldiers by flight, plainly showed that they were reconciled to the despotism under which they were living. The march took thirteen days, and any surprise of the town was now out of the question.

The Archdukes were seriously alarmed, and the late Cardinal bestirred himself to meet this emergency. He even won over the mutineers, who, as was customary when their pay was in arrears, had seized on a town, and constituted themselves an independent army, living by forced contributions on the surrounding district Before Maurice had reached the object of his expedition, the Archduke had collected a considerable army, and set out to meet him. His arrival was unexpected, and many of the positions which the Dutch commander had seized in order to fortify and protect his communications with Ostend were surprised. Maurice was caught in a trap in which it was necessary that he should be victorious, or his army be destroyed, and the Republic probably ruined. To win a battle he saw what was best to be done in the emergency, and he took his measures accordingly. He determined to send his cousin Ernest with a portion of his force to check the Archduke till such time as he could concentrate his own troops on, what he knew would be the field of battle. But the troops under Ernest were seized with panic, and offered little resistance to the Spanish charge.

The delay, however, was considerable enough, and the check was long enough to enable Maurice to collect his troops from both sides of the water. The army was in order of battle when the news came to the commander that his cousin's detachment was routed, and that the Spaniards were marching on them. The battle was fought on Sunday, July 2nd, on the sea-coast and sandhills. After various changes, in which the battle seemed lost or won, a final charge of the republican cavalry decided the day, and the Spanish forces fled in confusion. The Archduke escaped with difficulty, and his army was annihilated. But no other result of the victory ensued. The Dutch and their allies had proved that they could make a stand against the Spanish veterans, and defeat them in a drawn battle. They had already proved to be their masters at sea. But they did not capture Niewpoort or, Dunkirk, and so clear the channel of the privateers. There was, indeed, one result of this campaign. With it begins the feud between Maurice and Barneveldt, and in the end the execution of the Advocate in the square of the Binnenhof at the Hague, near twenty years afterwards.

The town of Ostend had long been held by the Dutch, and was now the only part of Flanders in which they had a foothold. They had used it as a convenient place from which to sally forth, and make forays on the obedient Netherlands, and many a Flemish country squire was captured and held to ransom by the Ostend garrison. At last the Flemish states urged that it should be besieged and, that the Archduke should, as they said, remove this thorn from the Belgic lion's foot. In order to encourage him they offered the governor 300,000 florins a month. Ostend was then a fishing village, round which the Dutch had raised the most efficient fortifications which the age could construct, while, on the other hand, no less than eighteen fortresses had been built near it by the Archduke, in order to repress the incessant incursions, from the town. So on July 5, 1601, the Archduke began a siege which was the most memorable and protracted that modern warfare has ever heard of.

The peculiarity of the siege of Ostend was that the town was not and could not be blockaded. The Dutch were dominant on the water, destroying at their pleasure and with little loss to themselves, the huge, unwieldly galleons of their Spanish enemies. With small vessels and far fewer men, the Hollanders disabled and sank fleets which were constantly, and on the same clumsy lines, built with the object of subduing them. Now the harbour of Ostend was always open, and it was easy to send men and provisions, and even building materials into the town throughout the whole siege. All that the assailants could do was to batter away at the fortifications, to mine and to blow up the walls, and, as it were, to dig away the ground on which Ostend stood. It is difficult to understand why the States-General held so obstinately to the sandhill on which the town stood, and almost as difficult to understand why the Archdukes wasted so many lives and so much money on the reduction of the town, for the loss which the obedient provinces suffered from the Ostend foragers was as nothing to the cost incurred for the reduction of the stronghold. While the siege was going on, and all the resources of the Spanish governor were being lavished on the destruction of Ostend, Maurice was gaining much more than an equivalent in the capture of strongholds, and particularly in the acquisition of Sluys, a far more important place than Ostend.

The garrison defending Ostend, and indeed the force attacking it, was composed of all sorts of nationalities. Every one who was interested in the art of war, visited during the course of the siege the fortifications of the town, or the trenches of the besieging army, and generally took part in the struggle on one side or the other. In the town at least a fourth part of the defenders were Englishmen, whom the Queen kept reinforcing. The garrison was commanded by Sir Francis Vere, one of those military adventurers of high birth, who attached himself early to the fortunes of the Dutch Republic and the service of Maurice. But despite the efforts of the garrison, it was on the point of surrendering on the eve of Christmas Day, in the first year of the siege. By an ingenious and not very honest device, Vere entered into negotiations with the Archduke, cajoled him with promises, and kept him quiet till reinforcements arrived from Holland. The general assault which was planned for Christmas Eve was postponed till January 7th, was made then, and was repulsed with enormous loss to the besiegers, After the failure of this attempt, pestilence destroyed more of the besiegers and of the garrison than the sword did. The siege continued through the whole of the year 1602, without much progress being made, for many of the Archduke's soldiers mutinied, seceded from the army, and under the name of the Italian republic seized a Flemish town, levied the means of support from the country and entered into communications with Maurice. The Archduke tried the remedy of excommunication, but with no effect.

Meanwhile certain brothers of a wealthy house in Genoa, Gaston, Frederic, and, above all, Ambrose Spinola, took part in the struggle. The first of these had settled in Flanders, and had been turned into a Flemish noble. The second took to privateering, was put into command of a Spanish fleet constructed on the old lines, was quickly and entirely beaten, with the loss of all his ships but one, by a couple of Dutch vessels, the whole force on which did not equal that on one of the eight galleys which Spinola commanded. This happened on October 3, 1602. But in the following year, on May 25th the Genoese volunteer put to sea with eight other galleys, was attacked by five small Dutch vessels, was defeated and slain. The siege of Ostend was still going on when Elizabeth died on March 24, 1603, and James Stewart succeeded. For a while the new king seemed disposed to take up the cause of the United Provinces more eagerly than Elizabeth had.

In October, 1603, the Marquis Spinola was made Commander-in-chief of the Archduke's army. On condition of his obtaining this office he had engaged to raise the funds necessary for the prosecution of the siege and the war from the wealth of his own family, and from his credit with the Genoese financiers. He had never undertaken military operations before, but in a short time he showed that he had natural abilities in the art of war, which made him no unworthy rival of Maurice. At first, indeed, great discontent was expressed at the rash experiment of entrusting the fortunes of the army to an untried adventurer. But he soon won the confidence and esteem of his troops, and captured Ostend, by the slow process of entire destruction, on September 20, 1604. The siege had lasted more than three years and three months, and over a hundred thousand soldiers had perished in the struggle. Meanwhile Maurice had captured a complete equivalent for Ostend in the town of Sluys, which had been Frederic Spinola's headquarters.